Sunday, November 8, 2009

My Robe's getting longer Mark 12:38-44

Mark 12:38-44; 1 Kings 17:8-16 , Nov 8, 2009
Westminster Presbyterian Church, Santa Fe

On Nov 22 we are going to have a good meal together, courtesy of Kevin Hart and his crew.We’ll recognize thanksgiving and give thanks for all our many blessings; And then we are going to turn in our pledge cards.  It’s part of what we call "stewardship." Of course when we talk about stewardship it means being good stewards of or taking care of what’s been entrusted to us—through the offering of our time, our talent, and our treasure to take care of the church and live out it’s mission; but really, when we talk about stewardship--it means means we fill out a blue slip and try to make a go out of church and ministry for another year. We can dream big and set a big budget and think of all the wonderful ways we can be church and keep a roof over our heads.

But of course, this is Nov 22, and we are only at Nov 8.  Gives us a few weeks to start thinking and praying about what kind of commitment each of us might be able to make.And to put things in perspective we have two stories of two widows, who may teach us a little about stewardship this morning.

The first widow we find in 1st kings:  She’s faced with a dilemma. A crazy person[1]—the prophet Elijah—is challenging her hospitality. First he requests a little water. "Okay, sure." Then, then he requests a little food, just a small morsel of bread…but it’s the last of what she has. She tells him, “ I'm gonna cook what I’ve got for me and my son, so we can eat it and die”....uff.,  Gloomy situation. But, real life. Some mother's face this dilemma. 

What do you do when the cupboard is bear...there is nothing to eat?   nothing left?   Runnin on empty, account’s run dry.  What would be your response to God?  ?  Give away to a stranger? Give up?   Or keep living for another day? 

Elijah assures her that her jar will be filled….and she trusts, gives Elijah some bread, and low and behold, "The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah." A powerful testimony of generosity, of trust, coming to a point of desperation and acting with bold generosity. 

So what does this teach us about stewardship? Giving? If we have reached the last of what we’ve got, do we give? Or if we have a whole lot, especially compared to this widow…do we give? Would we trust the crazy prophet Elijah if we came face to face with him and he demanded a small morsel of bread?  Do we trust the crazy church (can I say that) to do the will of God?  TO handle our gifts in a responsible way? And what about us as a community of believers, when the money is running low…do we still give? 

I wonder if the second widow we encounter from this mornings passage in Mark trusts the institution to which she is giving the last of what she had?  Jesus certainly seems to have a less than favorable opinion of the institution…or at least of the long robe wearing…. respect from the masses getting’… best seats in the church takin’…widow’s house devourin’—dudes, aka the scribes. "The longer their prayers, the worse they get."[2].  Jesus is saying, Those who are supposed to be leading the people of God in their holy spiritual walk, are full of it. 

Hmmm, good thing I don’t have this problem. You’d never see me—as I regularly speak in the name of God—just like these scribes—slip into speaking in godlike tones and assuming a godlike posture.  Right?  Well, we clergy are after all speaking God’s word!  And when people praise us..why yes..there is something God honoring in what they say. When people reject us, why how dare they, there is something god-defying in the way they act.[3]  Well, I suppose, there is some danger…Of course there is big time danger. And we, you and I both, need to be vigilant....Keep that ego of mine in check. And so far, you’ve done a pretty good job with me.

That’s what Jesus is doing with these scribes....keeping them in check.  Points out their hypocrisy.  And then Jesus perches like a bird overlooking the treasury and the people passing by putting their money in. How public was giving to the treasury? not like passing the plate discretely through the pews huh.Maybe someone was there counting and recording the given amounts: 100, very good,  200 hundred, even better.  2 mites!  What is this? The "well to do" contributing large sums of money... and then this widow gives 2 mites...a penny. 

Jesus calls his disciples over, and points her out to them. And in classical Jesus fashion, turns the tables... “this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” It's remarkable to think of her doing this. Why would she do this? Her cupboard is bear…tank is empty, account run dry …what would she eat?   What would you do in her situation? Would you give away? Give up? Keep living for another day? 

I got to thinking about this woman and what Jesus says.  When I first read the story, I thought wow…what faith, I assumed that Jesus was applauding her actions, setting her up as an example for the disciples and for us…teaching those of who are more well to do than her, to not be so stingy. But then I wondered is she giving because she’s grateful for the institution to which she is contributing?  Is she giving as a way to thank God for her impoverished lonely life? 

Then I got to thinking about the men at the homeless shelter.  Would Jesus ask them to give up the last of what they’ve got?  What if last week, each night while we were the host group at the shelter, at some point we passed a plate around saying, “give it up fellas, whatever you got, we need to support our church’s treasury, got a pastor to pay (he’s got a kid now), and the loan on our roof is still hanging over our heads.”  We know this woundn’t be right…plus none of those dudes would give us their money… …we’d probably have to demand it from them…it’s for the Lord after all.

So, with this widow, was this money being demanded of her?  It just doesn’t make sense that she would give this money away to an institution, if she didn’t have too, and that Jesus would applause this action, he just got through criticizing the very institution to which she was giving—those long rob wearing scribes devour widows…and here is a widow being devoured through a temple tax. Sure, she gave more than those who gave large sums, just as those who are in a lower tax bracket in our country give “more” than those who are in a higher income tax bracket—especially after the tax cuts that happened in the earlier part of this decade. 

But, I don’t believe Jesus is lifting up her behavior as a model for the poor and their money.  It was to the rich man that Jesus said, “sell all you have, give it to the poor and follow”…but here with this poor widow, I think Jesus is ticked off that she is being devoured by the very institution that is supposed to help her and raise her up? And that's why he says he's going to tear it down just after this scene (Mark 13:1-2).

Is not this the fast that I choose—we hear the Lord say in Isaiah 58-
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?
7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin?           

In this scene from Mark, not only does the behavior of the scribes point to the corruption of the institution...but so does the action of this widow, instead of setting her free, and loosening her bonds...she is a perfect example of how the institution has lost it's way.
She’s given all she has... all that she has to live on. 

So rather than an example for us, as we approach stewardship day—Nov 22—the day we bring our 2010 offering to the Lord. She serves as a warning.  Can we trust this institution and it’s leaders?  Are we as an institution seeking to be faithful..striving to do the will of God in all that we do?  Or—am I—just long robe wearin…best seat in the house takin dude? Are we simply generous givers out of our abundance? 

It's not often that I refer to our church's constitution when I preach.  But, even though it has gotten more convoluted over time, there are some wonderful theological statements that remind us who we are as we seek to be the church.
In chapter 3 of Church governance (G-3.0200-3.0400), it says:

"The Church is called to be a sign in and for the world of the new reality which God has made available to people in Jesus Christ. Sign?  How will it be a sign? By:
"Healing and reconciling and binding up wounds,...
ministering to the needs of the poor, the sick, the lonely, and the powerless,...
engaging in the struggle to free people from sin, fear, oppression, hunger, and injustice,....
giving itself and its substance to the service of those who suffer,....
sharing with Christ and the establishing of his just, peaceable, and loving rule in the world. 
The Church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life.[4]

So long as we are carrying out that mission…support the efforts of this place, with generosity, with the faith and trust of the first widow, the widow in First kings who gave her bread to Elijah, and her jar was kept full.

But, once you see my robe getting a little longer, or I start praying really really long prayers......once you see a community that seeks its own best interest, and forgets the poor widows, the street children, the homeless men, the sick and the needy, let's go ahead and close our doors...LEt's tear down the whole building.  And get back to following Christ.  Because if we don't, tear it down…we know that God will. And how often out of destroyed walls, desparate situations, and broken people, does Christ’s light shine the brightest. 

[1] pretty much an accurate description of all of god’s prophets according to the world)
[2] [I love Peterson's translation of this verse in The Message: "The longer their prayers, the worse they get."] 
[3] Eugene Peterson, Under the unpredictable Plant
[4] Feasting on the Word, Pete Perry, "Mark 12:38-44" p. 287-89.

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